5. Optimus Prime - Transformers: The Movie
In '80s science fiction, we viewers got rather familiar with the concept of robots living among us. We believed that in the future robots would become our trusted friends, our companions, our servants who would eventually rise up against us. In some cases, we could even believe that they could be our trusted protectors. When the evil Decepticons attempted to strip the planet of it's natural resources for the manufacture of energon, it was Optimus Prime and his Autobots who defended humanity, and ultimately paid the price for said protection.
Transformers: The Movie is a stark departure from the original animated series. While many of the characters are the same, the tone is much darker and the body count is exponentially higher. While Starscream and Megatron meet their ends (sort of), the Autobots suffer heavy losses including Ironhide, Wheeljack, and Rachet. If that weren't enough, the staff at Hasbro, inspired at what was to be the forthcoming death of Duke in the G.I. Joe movie (quickly changed to a recoverable coma after the backlash at the death of Prime), decided it was time for Optimus Prime to pay a visit to the great junkyard in the sky.
Finally succumbing to the wounds earned while putting Megatron to death, Optimus' scene is grim, with Prime handing over the Matrix of Leadership to Ultra Magnus before his eyes go dark and his cold metal skin turns gray. To make the scene even more dramatic, the sound of Daniel's weeping is silent, likely so that parents could clearly hear the weeping of the children sitting next to them. The fallout was loud and boisterous. Plans to kill off Duke were quickly retconned with the poisonous snake that was chucked dead center into his heart Thulsa Doom-style only putting him in a coma.
At the end of the film, the Joes, who had been recently teary eyed over their leader's gaping chest wound, get to celebrate not only the defeat of COBRA, but also that Duke was going to be "A OK!" Even Prime himself was eventually resurrected, and killed again, and resurrected, and killed again, and resurrected...
4. E.T. - E.T. the Extraterrestrial
Media, for the most part, has taught us that aliens want to either eat us, kill us, or probe us. Those prejudices are cast aside once we meet Spielberg's E.T., an alien who only wants to study Earth botany, go home and eat Reese's Pieces. Instead of invasion, we are presented with a heartwarming story about a boy and his alien and their adventures together. Things start to go weird when Elliott and the alien begin to experience a strange symbiosis, including shared intoxication thanks to E.T.'s imbuing of mass quantities of beer. So when E.T. starts to get ill, he quickly takes Elliott with him.
E.T. seemingly breaks the connection with Elliott and promptly dies, leading up to the Kleenex consuming scene above where the boy pours his heart out to the space creature on the rocks. Elliott plunges into existential nihilism and almost doesn't notice zombie E.T.'s return from the grave. His resurrection is a good thing; parents would have spent the entire car ride and subsequent hours after the film consoling their children, and think of what that would have done to the merchandising! Had E.T.'s death been permanent, however, we might have been spared that horrendous Atari game.
3. Darth Vader - Return of the Jedi
We've spent the better part of two movies fearing and despising the commander of the Galactic Empire's military, the Dark Lord of the Sith Darth Vader. Then he throws a wicked curve ball at us: he's the father of our hero Luke Skywalker. Children around the world all said the same thing in one collective breath: "No, that's not true. THAT'S IMPOSSIBLE!!!" While they didn't fling themselves down an air shaft, the gravity of the situation weighed heavily upon them. The much-loved hero was spawned by the much-hated villain.
Return of the Jedi further skewed perceptions, as now Skywalker embarks on his quest to redeem his father. Why, for the love of the Force, would Luke try to save the most hated creature in the galaxy? This was the douchebag that kicked Luke's ass and cut off his hand, for the Force's sake! Luke even delivers himself into the hands of the enemy in a misguided attempt to save his father.
As a five year-old child, I remember specifically thinking that Luke was a complete idiot as Vader ignited his lightsaber to defend his master. I cheered as Luke, now a Jedi, put a red-ass beat down on his more machine than man father. It was over, the bad guys had lost, good triumphed, and then the Emperor started to deep fat fry Luke with purple lightning. I remember sitting in the theater, watching between the fingers that covered my face, tears streaming down as Luke lay dying. Then the unthinkable happened: Vader rushed to his son's aide, throwing Palpatine down a shaft like a shriveled, cloak wearing Angry Bird. The collective gasp of surprise from all of the children in the audience was likely heard over the soundtrack, and my chin needed to be scraped off the floor.
Before we knew it, the deflector shield was down, the Falcon was inches away from planting a pair of concussion missiles into the reactor of the Death Star, and Luke is unmasking his father, pleading with Vader to allow him to save him. The most feared man in the galaxy, the foe for entire trilogy, is reduced to an old, scarred man, struggling to express his love for the son he never knew in his last breaths. For us children of the '80s who have gone on to become parents, it's one of the most powerful moments in the Star Wars saga; one that we barely understood as children, but understand all too well as adults.
2. Roy Fokker - Robotech
As a child, I wished for nothing more than to have an older brother. Someone to protect me from the bullies and harsh realities of the world. While I could not have one in any sort of biological way, even an older friend would have sufficed, like the one Rick Hunter had in Skull Leader: Roy Fokker.
Roy was larger than life. An ace pilot, a leader, a womanizer, and handsomely good looking, he would privilege anyone to act as a role model in their lives. He took the brash, incredibly immature Hunter and groomed him for a lifetime of duty and responsibility. When Fokker's Veritech took a hit from a missile, damaging his mecha and sending shrapnel through his body, he ignored it, completing the mission at hand, even passing on medical care as not to disappoint his girlfriend Claudia's planned date night. Then the unthinkable happens: sitting on Claudia's couch awaiting dinner, he slumps over, succumbing to his injuries. The screams of grief from Claudia are disturbing enough, but it's when the news is delivered to Rick any ambiguity is removed in a single sentence from him: "My big brother is gone."
I remember watching this as a child, no more than 8 or 9 years old, and weeping uncontrollably. The entire evening I was consumed with Roy's death, and I distinctly remember rushing off the school bus the next day to see if by some miracle he recovered. Up to this point, there was very little in the way of linear storytelling in cartoons. Most were essentially stand alone episodes, with some even explaining the basic plot in the intro to easily welcome new viewers in. Robotech was an exception to that rule. While its separate generations made it somewhat easy to pick up during a generation transition, most people could not understand it in the slightest if they just happened to catch an episode by chance. This also meant that character death was a real and permanent thing, particularly unique in the saccharine sweet world of '80s cartoons. Remember, this was the same '80s where COBRA was the only organization to have worse weapon accuracy than Imperial Stormtroopers.
Robotech pushed multiple boundaries in the realm of children's media. Not only was there perma-death, but aspects like interracial marriage and the rendering of Earth into a radioactive wasteland made more than one set of parents wary of the ambitious series. Perhaps that's why the series is still so popular, as its willingness to push the envelope makes it still relevant today.
1. Artax - The Neverending Story
For my father and the rest of the Baby Boomers, the most tragic event in cinema was likely the gunshot inflicted death of the rabies-infected Old Yeller at the hands of his young owner. As tear inducing as Yeller's death is, it barely holds a candle to the death of young Atreyu's stalwart companion, the horse Artax.
In their quest to find a name for the Childlike Empress, Atreyu and Artax must venture through the Swamps of Sadness, where those who succumb to their own sadness will also succumb to the murky black mud of the swamp. It isn't long before Artax's sadness gets to him and he begins to sink, despite the efforts of his young master.
What's particularly disturbing about this scene is that the horse, now suffering from depression from his trip through the swamps, essentially wills himself to die. As Atreyu pleads with him to think positive, to keep trying, and expresses his love for his steed, Artax continues to sink. It's a shocking parallel to depression, and how despite the best efforts of people who love them, people suffering with depression may not get relief from the efforts of others. The events even threaten the life of Atreyu, as the sadness of his loss threatens to pull him under the muck himself, if not for the timely intervention of Falcor. Regardless of whether you think the scene is an allegory for depression or just an scene for emotional exploitation, it's doubtful any child could escape that scene with dry eyes.
Previously by Jason Helton: